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September 1, 2006
So, how are things going with the Merck/Vioxx situation? Short answer: confusingly. Earlier this month, Merck's winning verdict from last November was thrown out, and the whole case will have to be retried next year. To balance that out a bit, this week one of the company's big losses had its $51 million dollar award overturned - the judge says that Merck is still liable, but that the award was "grossly excessive".
To add to the uncertainty, another Merck loss in RioGrande City, Texas is coming under scrutiny. Today's Wall Street Journal has a front-page article (subscription link) reporting that one of the jurors in that trial had a history of borrowing money (thousands of dollars worth) from the plaintiff, a fact that certainly didn't come out during the voir dire. Merck, needless to say, is looking into having this verdict thrown out as well.
All this makes it impossible to say just what's happening. The reversals (and coming re-reversals, for all I know) just make it even harder to grasp. Even without these backtracks, the whole business is moving on a slower-than-human-attention-span time scale, which is the problem with a lot of important issues. Watching grass grow and paint dry can actually be very useful, but we're not equipped to do it very well.
For the time being, anyway, the flood of damaging information and bad decisions coming from Merck's side seems to have receded, perhaps because there wasn't much left to accomplish in that line. Interestingly, if you were a Merck shareholder before the Vioxx disaster hit, you're still underwater - but if you bought afterwards, you've done extremely well. This seems to reflect (understandable) panic at first, followed by relief that the company was capable of winning a case or two and not immediately disappearing beneath the flood waters. But if we're going to try every case at least twice, I don't see the stock making much headway for a while.
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